Mr Birling’s arrogance is arguably his defining feature. From the opening stage direction to his final words, Priestley draws our attention to Birling’s “portentous” mannerisms and desire to act the part of the family patriarch and the wealthy industrialist. As Birling symbolises the capitalist ideology within the play’s microcosm of Edwardian England, it is clear that Priestley portrays him in this way in order to denounce the ills of a society built on self-interest and economic growth.
Yet, what if underlying Birling’s bombastic exterior is a hidden vulnerability? What if Priestley presents Birling as a character who is continually compelled to over-compensate because underneath the veneer of self-entitlement is an understanding that his role is actually precarious?
The opening scene provides a wealth of evidence for this point of view. Through the description of Birling’s “provincial” speech in the opening stage directions, Priestley draws our attention to the difference between Birling and the rest of his family. This sense of separation is further suggested when Birling says “Good dinner too, Sybil. Tell cook from me”, only to be reminded by his wife that “you’re not supposed to say such things”. Here, Mrs Birling is training her husband to assume the role of the upper-middle class gentleman; after all, Birling is new money and is therefore relatively ignorant of the etiquette that comes so naturally to his wife. As a result, arguably Birling’s awareness of his social inadequacy is at the root of his desire to remind everyone of the dizzy heights he has now reached. We are not allowed to miss the fact that Birling is in line for a knighthood, that he drinks the same port as Lord Croft, and that he plays golf with the Chief Inspector.
If we accept that Birling’s arrogance is a façade concealing his social anxiety, then the symbol of the Titanic becomes all the more potent. Ostensibly, Priestley’s use of dramatic irony in the description of the ship as “absolutely unsinkable” highlights Birling’s blindness to reality and his misplaced belief in the power of man over the natural world, as well as his certainty that his own opinions are more valid than any others. Yet, on closer inspection perhaps the Titanic can be aligned with Birling himself, and therefore foreshadow the industrialist’s downfall in the play’s final lines. Both the Titanic and Birling are the products of the Edwardian “golden age”. An overconfidence in technological advancement and class division underpin the Titanic’s fateful journey as well as Birling’s faith in his factory – and it is this overconfidence that led the Titanic to speed into the path of an iceberg, just as Birling metaphorically crashes into the immovable bulwark of the Inspector’s socialist agenda. For the Titanic to travel more slowly, or Birling to vocalise his mistakes, would be an admission of vulnerability.
Additional evidence that Priestley presents Birling’s arrogance as an act of overcompensation is found in the account of Eva’s dismissal from the factory. Whilst one might assume that Birling’s “provincial” and middle-class origins might prompt him to feel sympathy for someone just trying to make their way in the world, in fact the opposite is true. Instead, Priestley reveals how Birling’s precarious position leads him to actively widen the gulf between himself and anyone of lower social status. When Birling insists that “if you don’t come down sharply on some of these people, they’d soon be asking for the earth” he is undermined by Eric, who asks “why shouldn’t they try for higher wages? We try for the highest possible prices”. Through Birling’s use of the pronoun “they”, Priestley emphasises how the capitalist upper-middle classes insist on a clear division between themselves and their employees. Similarly, the impersonal word “people” indicates that Birling perceives his workers as a homogenous group, not as individuals. This helps Birling to step back from any personal connection or identification with his employees. In juxtaposition with this, the power of Eric’s question is that he makes a link between the employees and their employers. Whilst Eric is guilty of the same use of divisive pronouns, the repetition of the phrase “try for higher/highest” reminds the audience that Eva’s desire for a living wage is no different from Birling’s plans for increased profits. What Eric is blind to here, however, is an understanding that whilst Birling is striving for a greater level of financial comfort and social status, Eva’s fight is simply one of survival.
Ultimately, it is clear that whilst Birling’s arrogance is indeed his defining characteristic, this is as a result of his deep-rooted vulnerability. So, should we feel sympathy for a man who is wracked by internal doubts and fears? Priestley certainly doesn’t advocate this line of thinking; Birling’s own experience of making his way in the world doesn’t motivate him to have compassion with others who are just doing the same, but instead leads to his unsympathetic treatment of them. Thus, Priestley highlights the fact that capitalism is a broken system; although it privileges those who are fortunate enough to achieve success, the route to financial stability is one of corruption that leads to greed and callousness.